Moving river art reflects in its entirety different streams, as the modern paintings all round the gallery show.
Come the month of Markazhi and in the city of Chennai there is a veritable glut of music and dance programmes. Starting out with a lilt in your step as the season begins, hungrily taking in as much as one can, towards the end, it is not uncommon after days of bleary eyed auditorium hopping to look forward to some quiet and rest.
It is still the start of the season as one takes in bits of the 18th Natya Darshan Conference, titled Kadamba — The flowering path, mounted by Kartik Fine Arts, savouring the performance aspects of Bharatanatyam, even as innovative minds enquire, interact and debate on where the art form is headed. Curated by Priya Murle, herself a teacher, choreographer and performer, the chosen theme conjures up strong associations of Krishna romancing with the Gopis and Radha under the Kadamba tree in the Vrindavan and Mathura gardens, romantic interludes under the shade of this tree described in Sangam poetry and of course the myriad references in mythology, and ancient paintings of the tree laden with the incessant bloom of leaves and flowers — the ideal metaphor for natya’s everlasting fragrance, amidst inevitable changes.
In the morning hours, at the Forum Art Gallery for the morning’s show The Moving Canvas, which, portraying the Nava Rasas or the nine governing moods or states of being, or “rasas”(aesthetic bliss) evoked through interpretative dance, one sees the intimate gathering of bright eyed, smiling expectant faces of the young dancers blooming in conjeevaram silks and jasmin flowers and jewellery, and one contrasts the crackling air of anticipation all round along with the criticism one hears of Bharatanatyam as an “outmoded”, “Brahminised”, “irrelevant”, “sanitised” dance form, out of step with reality. Contrarily, the atmosphere in the Art Gallery represents a people with total faith and conviction in the art form — passed on to them by their individual gurus, an art which is their passion and their life. Moving river art reflects in its entirety different streams, as the modern paintings all round the gallery show.
Simultaneously, with the dancers presenting fare, building up to an emotional state of being, capturing each mood of this moving canvas through the strokes of his palette was painter Ilango, while cartoonist Biswajit Balasubramaniam echoed the same moods through his art form. As a centre of contemporary art, photography and ceramics, the venue provides for an ideal coming together of different art forms.
Raising the curtain on this journey of Nava Rasa through sringaram, the king of rasas, was (ironically or fittingly), male dancer Sathyanarayana Raju from Bengaluru, a disciple of gurus Narmada and Subhadra Prabhu, proving that art has no gender. In the five to six minute cameos each dancer was featured in, Sathyanarayana’s sringar herioned was Draupadi, with the long tresses which played such a predominant role in the Mahabharata — tresses by which she was dragged to court by Dushasana, with her vow, (leading to the Kurukshetra war), never to put up her hair till it had been anointed with the blood of Dushasana. But here in a romantic interlude, Draupadi is portrayed with the prince she loved best — Arjuna, lovingly coaxing him to be gentle while combing and putting her hair up in a bun, the tender exchanges and the final snuffing out of the lamp as she gets ready for bed, delicately echoing the sringar messages through the eye expressions of the dancer. Nandini Anand as vocal accompanist with Sruti Sagar on the flute provided evocative musical support.
Sangeeta Iswaran chose to pin her depiction of “hasyam,” the mood of mocking laughter and fun, on a straightforward Ninda Stuti, a genre of Indian literature which is replete with compositions wherein the devotee addresses the object of his love and worship in the language of anger and mockery. In this case it is Parvati addressing her Lord Shiva who is, for some unknown reason, annoyed with her. Why this anger against me? (“Yedu ittanai modittaan umakku endanmeedaiyya?” set to raga Surutti). And like a needle piercing a banana smoothly, she asks “Have I ever complained about your standing on one leg, dancing, or your going round with a begging bowl asking for alms?” Did I say anything when you smilingly rendered to ashes the three cities of the three demon powers you destroyed? Nor have I ever complained about your eating raw flesh offered to you as prasad by Kanappa, or about you dancing amidst the ashes in the crematorium grounds? Have I ever mentioned your lack of connections and the fact that you are not even (as Ardhanari) fully male? Parvati’s gentle raillery and mockery would suffice as a better response than anger. With her highly vivacious facial expressions and bodily attitudes Sangeeta packs a punch and what was particularly heartening was to see the expressional variety in asking in mock innocence, after each point if she had ever complained about anything. The dancer’s abhinaya guru Kalanidhi Narayanan would have been happy at her disciple’s presentation.
Compassion has been described in all literature as the greatest of qualities to possess. Dancer Roja Kannan, a senior disciple of Guru Adyar K. Lakshman, in the first part of her presentation used a line from the Papanasam Sivan’s Nattakuranji Varnam “Tamadam seyyade vandarul vai.” entreating the compassionate Lord to grant a glimpse of himself without delay. She chose two incidents to illustrate the mood, the first being of the great devotee of Tiruvorriyur Shiva, who, reduced to such penury that he could not afford to buy oil to feed the burning lamp for his God, decided to cut off his head and feed the lamp with his blood when the compassionate Lord appeared before him and blessed him. She ended with Vallalar’s work exhorting compassion as the greatest virtue, for the world of nature, for those stricken by incurable diseases like leprosy and ostracised by society, and for all mankind. While the details in the strands were too many in a very short depiction, the dominant note of compassion was very strongly brought out, with the music also very evocative.
Poetry fears the woman scorned, and so it was in the case of Vidya Subramaniam trained under S.K. Rajarathnam Pillai and Kalanidhi Narayanan, and now based in the States, in her expression of Raudra or anger. Taking recourse to a Javali “Muttavoddura” in Saveri, the infuriated nayika keeps at bay the unfaithful suitor who comes to her with his body carrying the signs of dalliance elsewhere. “Do not touch me,” she flays the wayward lover . The attitude of the proud nayika, who wants nothing more to do with him, was tellingly brought out, with the attitude of turning her back on him with expressions showing the distaste for all the unmentioned failures and faithless acts. As somebody remarked, fury contains within it shades of derision and disgust too as she shows him the door.
Instead of the one dimensional treatment of Veeram or valour of the martial character defeating foes, one liked the approach to heroism being viewed from the point of moral courage as experienced in the presentation by Bengaluru-based Lakshmi Gopalaswamy trained under Padmini Rao, Narmada and professor M.R. Krishnamurthy. The music too, using Taanam and pure dance passages, was multitoned. Draped in a tiger skin while hiding like a coward inside his palace when danger strikes is not bravery. On the other hand, to acknowledge one’s wrong doings, to return ill-begotten gains, to have the moral courage to die for a cause on the battle field is what real courage is about.
Well versed in Sanskrit and Bharatanrittam as a disciple of Padma Subramanyam, the famed Natya Shastra scholar/indologist and author and dancer/choreographer plus musician et al, Gayatri Kanan, who was also groomed in music under N. Rajam, functions currently as principal of Nrithyodaya. For her treatment of bhayanaka or the mood of fear, she depended on her illustrious guru who composed the music and dance. “Acham, acham, acham.” went the words as Gayatri entered the performance arena casting looks of fear on either side, and made her exit with the same sideways terrified glances. Too much wealth and prosperity carries with it the fear losing it and of having to keep guarding it while fear of poverty conjures up images of living from hand to mouth. Fear as a negative state of mind if allowed to take the upper hand will overshadow the whole of life, sapping it of all happiness. Gayatri’s was a presentation of fear and more fear.
Priya S. Dixit, now settled in Singapore running Silambam, an alliance of Shree Bharatalaya her alma mater under her guru professor Sudharani Raghupathy, was given the tricky task of evoking Bibhatsam, a feeling of disgust and revulsion. Her treatment was woven round the figure of Thataka dancing in her unseemly physical girth devouring raw flesh which for a demon is normal fare. The second part painted the entire scene, evoking a feeling of revulsion and disgust in the viewer. A character like Bhima for instance in red hot anger claws out the entrails of Dushasana, but what the gory scene evokes is disgust. Similarly the second part of Priya’s treatment showed the feelings aroused while watching Thataka. Wisely realising that this is not a mood which can be held over a long period, she made her narrative brief and muted, without going over the edge.
Representing the Vazhuvur School of her guru K.J. Sarasa and the Vempati school in Kuchipudi as the disciple of latte Vempati Chinnasatyam, Sailaja based her entire treatment of Arbutam, the sense of wonderment, on an Annamacharya Kriti in raga Bouli, “Oho entati vaade,” exclaiming at the feats of the Lord in so many manifestations. The lyric refers to some of the dasha avatars, and other aspects like feats of Krishna as Govardhana Giridhari. The dominant state of wonder was paramount.
Shantam or the mood of utter tranquility was not earlier recognised as a mood to be evoked, because that represents the inner stillness and calm from which all dance has to emanate in order to preserve objectivity of what is not a personalised but universalised state of being created through the dance. This rasa was added to what was earlier ashta rasa or eight moods. Sreelatha Vinod a senior disciple of the Dhananjayans chose to base her attempt at evoking the mood on Tyagaraja’s wonderful Keertanam “santamu leka saukyamu ledu Sarasadala nayana” in the raga Shyama, the most evocative of the mood of tranquility. Addressing the Lotus eyed Lord, the music prodigy states that even the performer of Yagnas, blessed with wife and wealth, and learning in the Vedas and acknowledged as a Bhagavatar, unless blessed with mental peace will never know happiness. And with what a quality of silence in Sreelatha’s rendition! It was shantam all the way!
As a finale to the moving canvasses portrayed through expressional expertise, was the snippet shown by Parvathi Ravi Ghantasala groomed under several gurus like Smt. Krishnakumari Narendran, Smt. Kalanidhi Naryanan, and Bhagavatulu Seetaram Sharma. Her presentation of the verse “Sringaradhra” saw Parvati looking at Shiva while being overcome by myriad emotions, originating from the deep love (sringaram) she has for him. Each aspect of his get-up stirs in Parvati a certain feeling — his ash clad body, and matted hair, the snake coiled round his neck, and the Ganga perched in his locks, the fire held in one hand, the other holding the spear and with one hand in the abhaya mudra spelling protection for the world. Parvati experiences all the moods in fleeting vignettes. Parvati as a seasoned dancer, did justice to the mukhabhinaya.
A varied experience!